somewhat the same

Twice a year I go to an allergist about an hour away in Orange County. Two tiny exam rooms, a reception area, a closet sized workspace that seems to be his office, and a sort of makeshift lab where he performs skin tests. The same two women, a receptionist and an assistant, have been working for him for as long as I've been a patient.

After I blow out digital candles on a computer simulated birthday cake, he peers in my ears and up my nose, listens to my lungs, and asks a handful of questions to verify that my lifestyle hasn't changed radically in the last half year. The whole process takes about eight minutes, after which we spend another ten bullshitting about our personal lives. In his case this means travel, the tribulations of parenting a 20-something, and updates on his romantic life. Then it's my turn. He asks me about living downtown, about my own relationships. The same things he's been asking me for years, the whole routine strangely reassuring.

Afterwards he tops up my supply of free, full-sized "samples" of the inhalers I use, each of which would cost over three hundred dollars at the pharmacy. He waves away my slobbering gratitude, making me promise to just come see him in another six months. I schedule my next appointment on the spot, always marveling, when the receptionist names the distant date, at how much will have happened before my next visit. "How about July 20th?" she said this afternoon, and all I could think was that by then I'll have turned forty, sung Piano Man alongside eighty thousand other people, and visited Georgia for the first time. A little bit older. A little bit fuller.

He's the only doctor I've ever looked forward to seeing, and he's been seeing me since 2009.

Today while looking over my chart he announces his upcoming trip to Switzerland. "Your lung function is awful," he adds, seemingly as an afterthought. 

"I'm sick!" The force of my objection starts me coughing. A wheezy hacking that bounces right out the door and down the hall. The other patients probably think there's a chronic smoker back here. "Work or pleasure? Switzerland." More coughing. I grab a tissue. Pointless, though. There's nothing coming loose.

"Ugh, Deborah." He's one of five people on the planet to still call me that. But from him I like it. Makes me think of uncles and cousins, New York relatives who always said it with an accent so thick it seemed tribal. "That cough is terrible." He pats the sterile paper stretched across the exam table. My invitation to hop right up, be poked, be prodded.

"Yeah. Well." His tone worries me. Somewhere along the way, for the lung function challenged, a cold stops meaning chicken soup and movie marathons and starts meaning potentially serious complications. I'm never sure if I've reached that point yet or not. 

But he's smiling, so it can't be that bad, right? Or else he's just excited about Switzerland, which he's telling me about now. Medical conference, up in the Alps. Train ride through the mountains. Just chugging along, miles and miles of snowy pine. I imagine him bundled up, tasteful scarf and overcoat, nose red and breath coming in steamy puffs. Stamping his feet to stay warm while he waits for his luggage. "Are you taking anyone?" I mean a girlfriend. He almost always has a new girlfriend.

He removes the disposable black plastic cone from his otoscope and tosses it at the trash. We both watch it bounce off the rim and land on the floor. "Buddy of mine and his two kids. Eight and eleven. That great age, you know? Before they start to hate their parents?" I murmur assent, my head tipped back to showcase my nostrils. "They call me Uncle Don. They love me. Deep breath. Again. Ugh, you sound horrible. Again, deep breath. One more." The clotted bubbling in my chest is embarrassing. It must sound disgusting, amplified to stereo by his stethoscope.

The doctor announces that he's putting me on antibiotics. "What?! No. Really? I hate antibiotics. For how long?" I'm not giving him a chance to answer and he's blinking at me patiently. Fatherly. When my mother died, my marriage tanked, and my design business grew too big for me to handle, my body reacted by literally deciding it was allergic to stress. I broke out in huge, raging hives all over my arms and legs. Blistering red, agonizingly itchy, lasted for months. Kept a bristle hairbrush beside the bed, scratched myself to bleeding, silent tears of frustration running down my face while my stranger of a husband slept, inches away. Prednisone, twelve pounds gained, no clear diagnosis from multiple apathetic doctors. Then I found Dr. Levy. The first time he saw me I broke down sobbing in the exam room. "You're going to be okay," he promised. "This is stress-related and it's temporary." He let me cry until I was empty that day, asking me gently what was going on in my life to terrify my immune system so badly. I told him everything, it just poured out of me. My mother, my marriage, the suicidal thoughts, my brother, how overwhelmed and alone I felt. He was determinedly cheerful. He felt for me, for all I was going through, but he wasn't going to let it swallow me up. And in the five years since then he's been a twice-yearly reminder that even the worst things in life don't have to swallow us up. I don't drive all the way to Orange County for free inhalers. Those could probably be obtained easily enough from decent, sympathetic allergists closer to home. I drive all the way to Orange County because he's the only doctor I've ever gone to who seems to genuinely care about me as a person, and that's where he's located.

He cocks his head, teasing. "What's wrong with antibiotics? Antibiotics are your friend." He knows I know this. In fact were he to describe me I bet he'd call me a "sensible girl." It seems like an expression he'd use.

"I knowwww," I intone, exasperated. "Believe me, I'm on your team. Yay science! I just--"

"You have acute bronchitis."

I explode in my seat. "What?! Bronchitis?? No way! How do you know? Just from listening to my chest?" This seems impossible. Shouldn't there be a test or something? Visions of sallow-faced old women, stooped over, gripping the arms of their wheelchairs in a paroxysm of coughing. Visions of my mother.

But Doc is ignoring my panic, skating right over it. Eyes on his laptop, tabbing through screens, submitting the prescription to my pharmacy downtown. "Five days' worth. You'll be fine in a few days." Few days. Fine in a few days. His words a warm bath, relaxing the grip of anxiety. And now we're talking about everyday stuff again. After Switzerland he's going to London. He's started making notes of all the crazy things he's seen as a doctor. Thinks maybe the collected anecdotes could be a book, or a podcast. His daughter has moved back home.

"That's common these days though, isn't it?" I offer helpfully. He groans and rolls his eyes. Doesn't want to talk about it. The latest girlfriend is mentioned briefly. Nice girl, too new for Switzerland though. She has fourteen year-old twin boys, entitled brats, their entire generation is like that though. Asks me about Terence. How long's it been, how's it going, etc. Offers up a few platitudes about compromise and communication. I let these stand rather than tell him that actually, things are pretty great. Gotta take the Dadisms where I can get 'em. 

"So you live downtown, right?" Here it is.


"Do you live in one of those big open lofts?" He asks me this every time.


"That's so cool!" He responds this way every time, too, probably imagining some boho chic, artistic space it doesn't remotely resemble. But that's fine too. 

And then we're done. I'm chaperoned back to the receptionist's counter, given an armload of samples and an appointment reminder card, and bid farewell until next time. "Thanks! See you in July!" Somewhat changed but somewhat the same too.